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Monday, February 27, 2017

The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $25.99 (c2015, US Ed. 2016)

I remember when it was hard to get British author Ann Cleeves’ books in the United States. Some of her books were out of print, others were just not available in a U.S. edition. The only series we could get with any certainty was the one starring Jimmy Perez of the Shetland Islands police. MBTB store manager Jean had to order the Vera Stanhope books from our British distributor. Of course, that meant the price was stratospheric. With the popularity in the U.S. of the Vera series, occasionally carried on PBS and now on Acorn paid streaming service, Minotaur has begun releasing the Vera Stanhope series. In the inexplicable fashion of publishing, however, it is easier to get the seventh book in the series than the sixth in the U.S.

“The Moth Catcher” is the seventh DI Vera Stanhope book. The first, “The Crow Trap,” was issued in 1998 (and recently released in a U.S. edition). Once again, she is joined by the faithful Joe Ashworth and ambitious Holly Clarke to investigate murder in Northumberland, England.

A studious young man, clearly disturbed by something, has cut ties with his fiancĂ©e and barely communicates with his parents. Although he had been working steadily on a doctorate, he seemingly abandons it to housesit in a manor house near a little town. The locals haven’t really gotten to know him before his body is discovered in a ditch. Who would want to murder him in a place where he is a stranger? Furthermore, when Vera’s investigative team searches the young man’s apartment in the attic of the manor house, the body of another man is found, also murdered. After much searching a link is found between the two. They both were interested in moths. They were both moth catchers. But what about moth catching would be enough to get them murdered?

It wouldn’t be a Vera Stanhope investigation if the psychological underpinnings of the characters weren’t plumbed inquisitively and thoroughly. In earlier times, Vera would have been Miss Marple, without the knitting. There are nearby suspects or suspicious persons aplenty. The manor estate has been mostly sold off and high-end homes created out of the estate’s former farmhouse and barns. Each home has a retired (“the retired hedonists,” they gleefully tell Vera) couple who has moved to the country to escape their former busy lives. It is delicious vintage Vera when she and her team explore their backgrounds and find, of course, many questionable activities. On the face of it, one of the least significant but most interesting background facts has to do with the daughter of one of the couples. She has been in jail for the last few months for GBH of a fellow bar patron one night and is soon to be released. What could that possibly have to do with the murders?

Vera does well in this country environment. After all, she is the daughter of the infamous poacher Hector Stanhope. She assisted her father in his nefarious nighttime outings when she was a child. In fact, her home is just over the hill from the site of the murder. For a city detective, she knows the ins and outs of the country and its denizens.

Like Nero Wolfe, the famous housebound detective created by Rex Stout, Vera is rotund, a characteristic that Cleeves harps on throughout the book — just in case we were inclined to forget. If I were Vera, I’d demand that Cleeves give her a break. Just how many adjectives can Cleeves come up with. (Like a Buddha was probably the low point.) Nevertheless, Vera is spry when the occasion warrants. Having been a hiker in that area of England, I know it requires a stout pair of boots (and a tolerance for mud and sheep pies) and strong ankles to traverse the rural trails.

Vera is my favorite of Cleeves’ characters. She is cerebral without an annoying intellectualism; tart and blunt but capable of grace; and pigheaded and secretive but willing to share any accolades with her team. Vera, Joe and Holly play their established roles very well. The resolution of the murders is more moving than I thought it was going to be. “The Moth Catcher” can be read without reference to earlier novels or the television series, but how wonderful that Minotaur is releasing the earlier books in the U.S.

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